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Men and Popular Music in Algeria

Men and Popular Music in Algeria
The Social Significance of Raï

A popular music form as a lens for viewing Algerian society.

Series: No. 20

August 1999
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
260 pages | 6 x 9 |

Raï music is often called the voice of the voiceless in Algeria, a society currently swept by tragic conflict. Raï is the voice of Algerian men, young men caught between generations and classes, in political strife, and in economic inequality. In a ground-breaking study, anthropologist Marc Schade-Poulsen uses this popular music genre as a lens through which he views Algerian society, particularly male society. He situates raï within Algerian family life, moral codes, and broader power relations.

Schade-Poulsen did his research in the 1990s, in clubs, recording studios, at weddings, and with street musicians. He describes the history of raï, which emerged in the late 1970s and spread throughout North Africa at the same time the Islamist movement was growing to become the most potent socio-political movement in Algeria.

Outsiders consider raï to be Western in origin, but Schade-Poulsen shows its Islamic roots as well. The musicians do use Western instruments, but the music itself mixes Algerian popular songs and rhythms with the beat of American disco, Egyptian modalities, Moroccan wedding tunes, and the songs of Julio Iglesias. The lyrics deal with male-female relationships but also with generational relationships and the problems of youth, as they struggle to find a place in a conflicted society.

The study, in its innovative approach to music as a template of society, helps the reader understand the two major movements among today's Algerian youth: one toward the mosque and the other toward the West.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on Transliteration
  • Introduction
  • A Story of Raï
  • The Raï Performance and Studio Recording
  • Young Men in the City
  • Listening to Raï
  • Transgressions in Raï: The Weak Side of the Strong
  • The Raï of Love
  • Postscript
  • Appendix 1: Four Versions of "Ma dannitsh natfarqu"
  • Appendix 2: Four Raï Songs
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Marc Schade-Poulsen is Executive Director of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network at the Danish Centre for Human Rights in Copenhagen.


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This story is based on my experience in Algeria from 1990 to the middle of 1992, a time of political turmoil that led to the tragic present-day armed conflict. I was living in Algeria frequently during this period, studying music, love and men's relationship to women.

Before going to Algeria, I had read and written about the major Islamist ideologues whose works were the basis of the present-day quest of Islamist movements to set up "God-given law" as the guiding principle in their different postcolonial nation states. I found that their texts were filled with arguments aimed at "converting" Muslim readers to a particular interpretation of Islam, that they were implicitly putting forward a sociopolitical analysis of their societies which continually returned to notions of greed, the abuse of power, egoism, lust, and amorality. These were Western attributes that had invaded the Islamic world, surrounding the Muslim, attracting him to the same behavior and making him feel it was impossible to live as a good Muslim in such a non-Muslim environment (see Schade-Poulsen 1988).

However, rather than entering the current debate among Islamists and other Western commentators, who are often engaged in the mutual confirmation of frozen images of Islam, I wanted to look for a more differentiated understanding of the then-current changes in Algeria. The conflict between the Islamic ideologues and their opponents was clearly the basis for intense feelings. I looked for a way to study the nonverbal, emotional aspects of this debate, and I ended up focusing my attention on raï music, the music of Algerian youth.

Music has always been an important part of my life. As a boy I was trained in music and particularly in the European classical choral repertoire. I grew my hair long and played the guitar. I studied African rhythms and Greek bouzouki, and began to explore the range of my voice. I experienced how music could provoke moods and release emotions, how it could be used as a form of therapy, and how it seemed that musicians possessed a language that reached across social borders. It struck me as paradoxical that the musical language in left-wing demonstrations did not differ much from the harmonies of bourgeois concert halls. And in Tunisia it seemed equally ironic that in the cafes, male arenas par excellence, it was women's voices—such as the great Umm Kulthoum—which defined the musical mood.

I felt that deeper, nonverbal messages and meanings were alive in music, and that a more profound and humanistic understanding of social life could be discovered in it. I was naive in this construction and I do not subscribe to so simple an understanding today. Nevertheless, at the time I was seeking to integrate my early private interests into my professional life, and as time passed, I became more and more eager to leave the square four beats of Western rock to become involved in music that fused elements from different worlds.

I remember the first time I went to Algeria, in 1978. On the boat, between two songs by ABBA, I heard Idir, a singer whose Kabyle songs, set to an instrumentation inspired by Western folk and protest songs, were having a profound effect in Algeria. The next time I returned I was again carried away by the richness and variety of modern Algerian popular songs. Finally, in 1987, when visiting Souk Ahras in eastern Algeria, I became aware of the importance of raï My friends there knew and enjoyed listening to at least a dozen raï singers, even though the musicians came from the other end of the country. I subsequently read that raï seemed to contradict the basic approaches of the Islamist movement (my first sources were Benkheira 1986 and Lefevre 1986). Yet it was clear to me that both raï and Islamism appealed to the young, and I decided to look for means of enquiring into that musical form.

As I became more focused on the purpose of the study, it became clear that I was not going to undertake a traditional ethnomusicological project. Instead, I wanted to approach music as a means of answering nonmusical questions; rather than asking questions in Algeria about issues such as Islam, economics, and politics, I would ask questions about music in order to reach an understanding of those aspects of life.

This meant that I began to break not with my naïveté (a state of mind recommended to students of music by Seeger 1987) but rather with the notion of music as pure and deep emotion. Although music can be said to be descriptive of emotions (i.e., it is "different" rather than "deeper" or "more profound" than other forms of expression), I began to favor the idea that from a logical point of view music and songs cannot be verbalized because—as a category of art forms—they are of a nonverbal nature. This goes even for words set to music, since lyrics are sung and not spoken.

This approach led me to investigate raï as "a total social fact," to study it in as many of its aspects as possible in order to circumvent its unspeakableness. This does not mean that I consider a musicological understanding of music useless. One must venture into music, its Production, and its form in order to acquire a precise understanding of the ways it reaches from "pure" sound into social life and how the latter in turn reflects back on music. In seeing music as total social fact, I had to follow it from production to consumption in order to understand the processes that are embedded in the making and reception of a musical form such as raï. This is what I have attempted to do in this book.

Sources of Inspiration

Raï is a popular musical style from Algeria which uses Western instruments and mixes local popular songs and rhythms with American disco, the songs of Julio Iglesias, Moroccan wedding tunes, Egyptian preludes, and other sources. It came into being in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is sung by young singers called "chebs" (or chabas, young women), most of whom come from Oran (Wahran), the second largest city in Algeria. Since it began, raï has produced hundreds of songs and spread over a much wider territory, becoming known worldwide.

In studying raï I have found an invaluable source of inspiration in writings on games and plays such as those by Bateson (197z), Bromberger (1995) Caillois (1958), Geertz (1973,1983), Hammoudi (1988), Huizinga (1970 [1949]), and Mead (1934). But because raï emerged in a contemporary context of mass-produced luxury goods and transnational cultural expression, current anthropological debates on cultural production are also relevant. Increasingly, the classical approach to societies as self-sustaining communities has been questioned. Culture can no longer be seen exclusively in terms of a discrete geographical territory (if indeed it ever could) because of increased worldwide interconnectedness through systems of cultural communication. Popular culture, pop music, youths' gaze toward the outer world, can no longer be seen as "noise" to be filtered out in order to expose a "purer cultural reality."

Thus writings on Western youth cultures and their relation to music are also useful in the study of raï. However, it is important to recognize that although since the 1970s young people, as a distinct group, have expressed part of their identity through music (Malm and Willis 1984, Robinson et al. 1991), Western concepts of youth or leisure time cannot be transferred to other cultural contexts, such as the Arabo-Muslim world. Indeed, one of my main preoccupations in this book is to avoid indiscriminately using Western social concepts in describing the Algerian situation with respect to raï and to instead focus on how apparently worldwide homogenizing tendencies within music can nevertheless result in specific musical and sociopolitical realities.

Gender relations constitute an important part of such specific social worlds. My decision to focus on men reflects the fact that foreign male anthropologists in a Muslim country are not allowed much access to the female world. I realize, of course, that it is impossible to represent a whole society only through men's eyes. Recognizing the importance of gender relations in any society, I have tried to take gender seriously while focusing on men and not to mistake them for the entire social world. Nor does my concern with men mean that women will disappear from the text. When dealing with music and its relation to male youth, I found women standing at the center of male attention. Raï is a form of popular music which, like most mass-produced music, mainly deals with love. Wherever I went in Algeria, when discussing raï I inevitably found myself involved in stories of love and men's relations with different categories of women in a society undergoing rapid change. It is in this way, in a male mirror, that women will appear in this story, and clearly the Algerian male world as it is expressed through raï certainly has sociocultural as well as political consequences for women.

In fact, this book can be seen as a narrative which moves from the production of raï to its consumption and then to an analysis of men's views on and relation to women in Algerian public life. It is in public life that the male anthropologist will most easily meet young men in Algerian society—outside of working hours—where many formulations are made and remade about what work activities should ideally lead to in terms of patterns of consumption and social mobility. This is particularly interesting because the most potent political force in Algeria today, the Islamist movement, has as one of its major preoccupations the separation of men and women in precisely these spheres of work, consumption, and social mobility. Thus, though this book is concerned with music, love, and men's relation to women, it situates itself in a precise historical, political, and economic context.

Algeria and Islam

In the last thirty years, Algeria has developed from a colonial, agricultural exporting area to an independent, rentier state based on the exportation of gas and oil. It has experienced a modernization of agriculture that never "took off" and an industrie industrialisante that was never completed. Although economic investments succeeded in creating an increase in earnings from wage labor and a parallel rise in the number of wage labor jobs, the 1980s experienced a severe recession particularly after the fall of oil prices (from $30 a barrel in 1981 to $12 in 1988). Foreign debt rose from $1 billion in 1970 to $24 billion in 1988 (see Addi 1990). In 1992, 70 percent of foreign currency earnings were being spent to finance foreign debt at a time when the country was in acute need of productive and social investment.

These changes have been accompanied by one of the world's most rapid demographic growths. In 1966 there were just under 12 million inhabitants in Algeria. In 1989, there were 25 million, of whom 80 percent were under the age of 30 (El Moudjahid, September 19, 1990). This growth was accompanied by a massive influx into the cities. Whereas 31.4 percent of the population was urban in 1966, 50 percent of the population lived in cities by 1987 (Office national des statistiques [ONS] 1988).

These changes have been acutely felt in daily life. In 1989 only 4 million out of the population of 25 million were officially employed, and 1 million were officially unemployed. Of these, 80 percent were between 17 and 27 years of age (El Moudjahid, September 19, 1990). In 1992, 1.2 million were officially unemployed (Le Matin, August 24,1992). The most catastrophic development, however, has been in housing. In 1994 the population of 27 million lived eight persons per unit. To make this average fall by just one person, six hundred thousand units would have to be constructed immediately. To reduce the crisis, two hundred thousand units would have to be built every year for ten years, an impossibility given the actual capacity of the system (see Lesbet 1994).

At the same time, significant structural changes have taken place in Algeria with regard to the young. First, the system of education has been democratized. In 1991, 81.5 percent of those aged six to fourteen were enrolled in school, 96 percent of them in the large towns (Horizon, September 11, 1991). Second, the period of adolescence has lengthened considerably. In 1966, the average age of marriage was 18.3 years for women and 23.8 for men; in 1987, it was 23.7 and 27.6, respectively (Sari 1990: 2-8). Third, for the first time in its modern history Algeria has witnessed a significant entry of women into the public sphere. Although out of a potential female workforce of 4 million women only 365,000 were employed in wage labor in 1987, this number nevertheless represents an increase of 164 percent in ten years. Furthermore, the majority of the female workers were young, unmarried women living in the cities (ibid.:37). Eighty-five percent of the girls in large cities were enrolled in primary education (Horizon, September 11, 1991), and 30 percent of the students at the secondary level were women (ibid.:45). Finally, the creation of wage labor jobs in the 1970s, the population influx into the cities, and changes in youth conditions also seem to have changed the structure of the Algerian family.

The departure of the French in 1962 in itself left a large number of vacant houses and apartments for the Algerians to move into. But even without this event, the general trend has been for the extended family as a unit of production and consumption under the guidance of a patriarch to diminish in importance (see Boutefnouchet 1982; Kerrou and Kharoufi 1994). The extended family as a unit of consumption has gained importance, and there has been a shift from the extended family to the nuclear family. The couple has emerged as a central social unit, weakening the foundations of patriarchal control. An example of this change can be seen in the Family Code of 1984, which, although conferring a dependent status on women, detached itself from the classical Muslim definition of marriage, which implies contracting for a wife in order to gain access to licit sexual relations. While remaining silent on the subject of marriage, the Family Code instead mentions the founding of a family on the basis of affection and mutual aid (see Dennouni 1986:712). However, as Boutefnouchet (1982:154) has noted, the nuclear family is not necessarily a stable unit. It may develop into an extended family, depending on individual family norms, housing conditions, and the job opportunities of family members.

Algeria has also witnessed the rise of Islamism. The factors involved in the growth of this form of Islam are too complex to discuss at length here. However, it is appropriate to point out that the origin of this form of Islamist thinking must be traced back to at least the beginning of the century and that it grew in importance mainly at the time of the national awakening of the 1930s (see Carlier 1995; Colonna 1974, 1995; Merad 1967). After independence, it was continually present on the political scene. The ruling party itself promoted a policy of "arabization" and made diverse attempts at national islamization. For example, in 1976 it introduced Friday as the weekly day of rest and in 1984 adopted the Family Code, which severely restricts women's rights.

At the same time, Islamism grew in strength as a force of opposition. The introduction in the early 1960s of teachers primarily from Egypt with a background in the Muslim Brotherhood was of importance to this development. The politics of arabization were even more important because outlets for arabophones were not created in the state apparatus, the language of which remained French. The lack of social mobility among major groups within the postindependence generation is a prime factor in understanding the success of an activist form of Islam whose main political (utopian) goal seems to be the installation of a moral, uncorrupt state of justice. This must also be combined with the fact that since independence, Algeria has been ruled by an authoritarian elite which has left little room for popular, democratic experiences and whose backbone has been the army.

In the early 1980s (the years of the raï breakthrough), Islamism started growing into a mass movement, gaining further strength during the revolt of October 1988. This revolt was the result of both popular dissatisfaction with worsening economic and social conditions and of disagreements among factions within the ruling elite. As a result, for some years the country experienced an intense democratic period with a change in the constitution, the temporary withdrawal of the army from the political scene, and freedom and proliferation of the press. It also experienced the unification of major Islamist groups into the FIS (Front islamique du salut), which in 1990 won the first free city elections to take place in the country since independence.

However, after 1990 the political situation grew increasingly complex. In 1991 a branch of the FIS decided to challenge the government by launching a general strike and agitating for (among other things) progress toward direct presidential elections. In June 1991, the movement was broken and parliamentary elections were postponed until December of the same year. In the elections, the Islamists won a major victory, with 54 percent of the votes cast in the first round of the elections. Shortly afterward, President Chedli was effectively deposed and the army took control of the country. The installation of Boudiaf as leader did not succeed in legitimizing the government. After his murder in June 1992, it became increasingly clear that the country was moving rapidly toward a tragic armed conflict.


I carried out my fieldwork on raï in the intense period between the nationwide city elections and Boudiaf's murder. Inspired by Marcus and Fischer's recommendation (1986) to study communities as parts of larger systems, I began my fieldwork with an initial six weeks in Paris in 1990, where I contacted journalists, promoters, bars, discos, and local radio stations involved in the dissemination of raï music. I soon lost a large number of illusions in regard to what musical activities were about. It was obvious that in France, raï could in no way be seen as pure art. At the time, it was being incorporated into the World Music concept and was being cultivated by a chain of middlemen who were necessary for the mass dissemination of raï to take place.

With these experiences in mind—and with a collection of press articles in my files—I went to Algeria for three months in the autumn of 1990. My idea was to broaden my personal knowledge of Algeria, and since raï was a mass-produced product, to try to obtain an impression of its wider impact in the country. My journey took me to Algiers, Oran, Tlemcen, Sidi Bel Abbès, Bejaia, and Souk Ahras. I contacted journalists, raï studios, and raï singers. I had formal and informal encounters with fourteen cassette dealers and did twenty-four structured interviews with young men involved in raï. It became clear that except in the Kabyle area, raï was the most popular music in Algeria.

One of the most notable results of this experience was the realization that whenever I looked for agents who were supposed to have played a central role in the creation of raï—singers, producers, and others—they were difficult to reach, and when I did reach them, I did not obtain much more information than I had already read in the press. One reason for this was that those involved in the raï business were busy people in constant demand. Another was that dozens of journalists had been there before me. A story had already been told which—I gradually realized—did not exactly correspond to the reality of raï music for the singers, and which did not necessarily bring them positive returns.

I also knew that an overt interest in Islamism had to be played down. Two months before I arrived, the Islamists had won the local elections in the major cities. As a consequence, almost every public music concert in the Oran area was stopped by the Islamists, who were ceasing to fund nonreligious cultural activities. Only after the army crushed the Islamist general strike in June 1991 and arrested the main leaders did some concerts and festivals timidly reappear. The political atmosphere in the country was extremely tense. I did succeed in meeting a few regional leaders of the FIS, but otherwise it was obvious that any systematic inquiry into raï and Islamism at the same time would not be advisable.

Thus, although Islamism was an initial interest, the subject had to be excluded formally from the project. I did not tape sermons in the mosques. I did not systematically associate myself with active members of the movement. And I did not want to merely reproduce what was already known from other writings. The Islamist movement is thus filtered through the "lens of raï rather than being approached directly.

I returned to Algeria in the spring of 1991, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, in which a majority of Algerians had been pro-Iraq and during which photos of Algeria's former strongman, Boumedienne, appeared side by side with photos of Saddam Hussein. I planned to stay in Oran for six months and then complete my field research with another two months in Paris in 1992.

My basic idea was to follow the performance, production, and consumption of raï in as many of its phases as possible, using a qualitative approach. During my first trip it had become clear to me that any quantitative approach to raï would have to be abandoned given my time schedule. Such an approach would be of little use anyway without an initial qualitative understanding of the factors involved in the success of raï.

Thus, I looked for young men with whom I could reach a level of confidence. My friends turned out to be between twenty and thirty years old, most of them unmarried. Thus they had been teenagers during the development of electric raï. The young men and youths who people the following pages belong to this group of friends and their numerous acquaintances. When I discuss young men's problems, I refer to theirs, and not to the even worse problems of today's teenagers in Algeria.

I also spent a good deal of time in the recording studios and tried to reach the best known singers for interviews, though my initial plan of playing with a group of musicians met with several problems. First, it turned out that the notion of a group was no longer current in Oran. People met for performances only as a consequence of being hired by the one with the performance contract. Second, the rising conflict between the FIS and the government meant that very few weddings had live music.

Finally, in the beginning of July I hastily had to leave Oran. Three months had passed, during which Denmark had introduced a requirement for visas for Algerian citizens. Algeria responded by demanding the same for Danish citizens. With the acute political crisis, no one in Oran dared to take the responsibility of giving me a visa, and I was consequently forced to leave by the local authorities.

Back in Denmark, I succeded in obtaining a two-month visa in the autumn with the help of the Danish Embassy. I arrived in Oran in time to take part in a number of weddings and a raï festival with second ranking singers, which took place under the auspices of the army. By then I had decided to go back to Algeria during Ramadan in 1992 and spend in all two months in Algeria and then one month in Paris. By then I felt certain that it would be of greater interest to concentrate on a study of raï in Algeria, for it was only described in writings to a limited degree, and my understanding of it was only just beginning.

In 1992, I returned to Oran a few months before the murder of Boudiaf. During Ramadan I had the opportunity to take part in a number of live performances in town, mainly in cabarets and restaurants. The arrests of thousands of leading members of the FIS had provided a temporary if uncertain breathing space for secular leisure activities. I spent the last month talking with young men about raï in restaurants and bars, attending weddings, and visiting with friends. I succeeded in contacting a good number of singers and also conducted intensive interviews with my friends on how they perceived a number of raï songs.

Thus during my last stay in Algeria, several elements which until then had run separate courses began to come together. I began to realize that most of what I had read about raï until then (mostly in the press) and a lot of what I had been told, while factually correct, had not uncovered the basic principles of raï. In particular, I found that the performative aspects of raï and the consumer's and producer's awareness of the raï format had been neglected. I began to understand that my own approach had been biased in similar ways, and finally, that this bias not only had to be corrected, but also had to be taken into consideration as an important part of the whole complex of raï In this sense, my investigations in Algeria stopped just when they began to bear most fruit.

The following pages will take readers into my interpretation of the raï universe. In chapter 2, I start with a formal history of raï and then show how the music became integrated into the media and subsequently translated into a Western discourse. The latter version of raï which prevails on the global scene, is not necessarily the most enlightening one.

In chapter 3, I break with the Western media version of raï. In order to do this, I start with the basics of raï the live performance, and gradually show how raï is transferred from live performance to the recording studio. I describe how the songs are reproduced on cassette tapes for a wider audience.

In chapter 4, I venture into the social life of seven raï listeners I met and describe the context of their lives in the city of Oran. The chapter is intended to be a wider introduction to the discussion in the next chapter of how raï songs extend from cassette tapes into social life. Chapter 5 then takes the form of a dialogue, with intensive interviews I conducted with the seven raï listeners on their perceptions of songs I played for them.

In chapter 6, 1 move from individual cases to the wider society, describing the context of the songs' origins in the cabarets of Oran and discussing their impact on Algerian society. The chapter thus situates the songs with regard to Algerian family life, moral codes, and power relations, as well as placing raï in the present-day context of Algerian society, with the rise of Islamism.

Finally, in chapter 7, I leave the cabarets and the family to venture into public Algerian life, into the spheres where young men and women meet. Raï songs are discussed in relation to young men's experiences with women. Topics of national politics are expressed in raï in terms of women and love, and raï gives a clue to the understanding of two major movements among Algerian youth: one toward the mosque, the other toward the West.

All in all, the study follows "the social life of raï (see Appaduraï 1988). It looks at what people have done to it, and what it does to people. As such it highlights not only raï itself, but also Algerian cabarets, weddings, recording studios, family life, and street culture, particularly in relation to men.

The study claims only a qualitative insight into raï and to conditions of life among male youth. When I write about what "people," "a number of listeners," or "youngsters" "say," "state" or "do," this must be understood not as statistically representative, but as behaviors that I observed in (primarily) the city of Oran in the early 1990s. Events occurring after 1995 have not been included in this book.

I have chosen to preserve the anonymity of all my informants. Due to the situation in Algeria it is impossible to know the purposes for which a book like this might be used. Since my departure, two of the people I knew, the top singer Cheb Hasni and the producer Rachid Baba, have been killed, and most other singers have sought refuge in France.

I dedicate the book to my friends and all those who helped me. Many are today in an extremely difficult situation as citizens of a state in armed conflict and economic crisis. The Algerians I know want a state of justice and prosperity in which their overwhelming creativity can be expressed.

Basic Raï Terms

Several terms that are essential to understanding the story of raï are explained here.

What Does Raï Mean?

Raï (rraï) literally means "a way of seeing," "an opinion," "a point of view," "advice," but also "an aim," "a plan" and even "a thought," "a judgment," "a will." In Orania it is widely said that in the past people went to a shikh (see below), a poet of malhun, to ask for his raï, his advice, expressed as poetry. Many, even raï musicians and singers, will say today that this is the real raï.

But the word also appears as a stopgap expression in a number of songs of a more popular kind, as one finds "aman, aman" in Turkish songs, "ya lil, ya lil" in Egyptian songs, and "dan dani" in the poetry of the shikhs (see Virolle-Souibés 1988a: 203—all of these expressions are also found in raï), or the "oh no, oh no" or "yeah, yeah" of rock and blues lyrics.

Raï's rhythmic and tonal universe originates from western Algeria, with its center of gravity lying between Relizane, Saïda, Sidi Bel Abbès, Oujda (in Morocco), and Oran. The emergence of raï is generally associated with the migration into the cities of western Algeria (Miliani and Belkhadem 1981, Comité 1985, Miliani 1983, Virolle-Souibés 1988a), starting with the world depression in the 1930s. Other sources, however, mention elements which are associated with the raï music of today, such as the "repetitive" musical form, improper forms of expression, women entertaining men, and games of competition, indicating that raï as a genre goes much further back in history (Azza 1979; Daumas [1869] 1983; Delphin 1886, 1891; Gaudefroy-Demombynes 1901; Rouanet 1920).

One important element in raï has been that it is danceable, with simple but characteristic lyrics. It also uses the local dialect, with noticeable influences from Spanish, French,literary Arabic, rural, and city dialects (Virolle-Souibés 1988a: 192). This has been true of popular local poetry since the middle of the nineteenth century (Azza 1979:15, Tahar 1975:43). Another important element in raï is the incorporation of Western instruments into a local repertoire. This is not a new thing either, since it has been reported throughout this century (Bureau 1964, Rouanet 1920, Safir 1949, Yafil n.d.). In fact raï relates to a multitude of sources, which can be best understood by looking at the cheb, the shikh, the shikha, the maddaha, and the wahrani.

What Is a Cheb?

Cheb (shabb) is the title given to male singers of the new musical style. The women are called chabas (shabbas). Cheb means young man (chaba, young woman) and must be seen in relation to shikh and shikha, which designate experienced or older singers. The fact that a great number of singers use the word in their artistic names has been seen as a novelty and as a self-conscious label expressing a rising youth identity in Algeria. But not all raï singers use it. It is as much the creation of publishers as of singers, and the expression is not new. As early as 1957 a songwriter of the light versions of wahrani (see below) presented himself as Cheb Mohammed Benzerga.

What Is a Shikh?

The title of shikh is generally accorded to a learned man to suggest that he is an educated, mature, practicing Muslim, but in relation to raï it is associated with poets or interpreters of malhun, sung poetry in the local dialect which has existed in the Maghreb since at least the sixteenth century (see Comité 1985, Virolle-Souibés 1988a:179). The poetry is a highly elaborate art form which takes years to learn through an apprenticeship, and it consists of thousands of verses and qasidas (poems) dealing with historical events, satire, religion, heroism, and love. It exists all over the Maghreb, and in the Oran area is associated with the badawi (Bedouin) styles of recitation accompanied by at least two gasbas and a gallal.

As noted, many in Orania consider the shikhs to be performers of the true raï. The Algerian press in general, as well as a number of scholarly commentaries, have described raï as a degenerated form of the malhun. But as we shall see, this is not true, even if parts of the shikhs' poetry and style of declamation are found in the raï of today. In Oran the shikhs' poetry was highly esteemed in general, but seldom listened to by the young, and in many cases it was not understood, even among raï singers who recorded extracts from the shikhs' songs.

What Is a Shikha?

While shikh is a title with a positive connotation, the feminine shikha is more ambivalent. The shikha performs with male instruments, the gasbas and gallal, sometimes also with other female dancers. Her art is built on a spontaneity appropriate primarily for men, and this in a Muslim society constitutes an act of moral transgression. The places of performance have been wa`adas (religious festivals), weddings, mahshashas (taverns with hashish), taverns, and pleasure parties (bastas). Historically, shikhas are associated with brothels and prostitution. Their names and recordings have been an inspiration for the raï singers of today.

What Is a Maddaha?

The expression maddaha comes from the root word madh, "to praise, celebrate, sing religious poetry." The maddaha is a woman versed in religious as well as profane songs, who sings at different ceremonies such as weddings and circumcisions. In the early 1990s, the maddaha performed with a group of female instrumentalists; one was a violinist and the others played percussion instruments such as the tbila (a small clay drum beaten with a stick), the darbuka, the gallal, or the banndir while singing response choruses. Like the shikhas, they play in a generally spontaneous style. Their reputations, however, are more positive than those of the shikhas since they play exclusively for women; as such they are considered less transgressive. Some are known to have been poets in their own right, for example, Khaira Es-Sebsajiyya and the binat (girls of) Baghdâdi (Belhalfaoui 1982a, Mebarki and Naceri 1983). Many female raï singers started their careers as maddahas, and they still perform in the acoustic genre at female gatherings. They too have had an important impact on the male raï of today.

The Wahrani

The wahrani (Oran music) is associated with the music developed in the city centers of Orania, mainly Oran, from the mid-1930s through the flourishing period of the 1950s. Broadly speaking, the wahrani is an adaptation of the malhun to city instruments (such as the `uud, the accordion, the banjo, the piano, etc.), to the melody and rhythm of the Oran area, and to a tone universe relating to the mass-produced music of the Arab world and to Spanish, French, and even Latin American songs. It has provided present-day raï with a repertoire of instrumental sounds, melodic patterns, and combinations of rhythm. However, raï must not be confused with wahrani. Raï musicians do not possess the same finesse of musical approach as is found in the wahrani, and the poetical ideas are not nearly as elaborate. On the other hand, electric raï has adopted and recorded wahrani songs and given new texts to wahr·ni tunes, while composers of wahrani have created songs for raï singers.

This brief overview of the main elements in raï shows that this musical genre does not have clearly demarcated lines. When I was in Oran, however, people frequently referred to the first records after independenceon which the "spontaneous" form of raï was adapted to the instrumentation of the city—as the beginning of raï The best known was a 1965 recording by a twelve-year-old, Bouteldja Belkacem, of two songs by Cheikha Ouashma: "Ziziya" (Ziziya told me to have a party at her place to night, Ziziya told me to spend the night with her) and "Sidi l-hakim" (Mister judge, where are they taking me?). So there are considered to be definite origins.

One important early raï musician was Bellemou, a trumpet player who before independence played in the local marching band of Aïn Temouchent. After 1961 he expanded his repertoire by combining trumpet and saxophone with local percussion instruments, thus replacing reed flutes with brass; he performed at events such as football matches and wedding processions. A third notable development took place in the raï groups of Sidi Bel Abbès, who replaced reed flutes with the electric guitar and the wah-wah pedal. The earliest name associated with this genre is Mohammed Zargui, who died in 1981.

At the end of the 1970s, the key instrument of raï in Oran was the accordion. Western music, Hindi film music, and Moroccan music (such as Nass el Ghiwane and Jil Jillala) were popular. A great number of musicians were also versed in the popular songs of the area. They would meet with musicians like the Nawi brothers, the Qada brothers, Mokhtar the drummer, and later Hocine the keyboard player, who were all playing Western pop and rock, and they became among the first to introduce electric instruments to raï. Violinists like Kouider Berkane and Abdallah Rerbal and the drabki player Hocine, on the other hand, contributed to maintaining continuity with wahrani music.

Another important musician was Mohammed Maghni, one of the few in raï to have formal musical training and practical experience as a keyboard player in the pop group the Students. He created new arrangements in raï—with feel-ins and riffs from rock, disco, and sometimes jazz—within the Oranian style of phrasing. The best known "electric" musicians, however, were Rachid and Fethi, the Baba brothers, lovers of Western pop and music technology (with some ability to invest) who were the first to introduce the complete synthesizer and drum-machine sound into raï in 1982. Later, they invested money in the best multi-track studio and recording facilities in North Africa and were clever enough to employ trained musicians like Ben Ali and Samir. Rachid is now dead, shot down in Oran in February 1995 by people who never publicly acknowledged the act.

But in the early 1980s it was not yet apparent that Algeria would experience its present-day tragedy. It is here that the story begins.



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